Digital Fortress, Dan Brown

St. Martin’s, 1998, 430 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-99542-3

There it is. Dan Brown’s first book, well before The Da Vinci Code, and the last one of his I still hadn’t read. Closer to Deception Point‘s techno-thriller feel than either one of the Langdon adventures, Digital Fortress is still nonetheless all about codes and how to break them. Unfortunately, it also seems to be about how many stupid mistakes one can stuff in a novel and still claim to have done research.

You don’t need to know much about the plot, especially if you’ve read other Brown novels: It’s about an unbreakable code, a disabled assassin, a honest man and a honest woman trying to uncover a conspiracy and enough twists and turns to make anyone’s head whiplash. Oh, and it’s also about how, in Brown’s novels, the mentor is always the bad guy. No, seriously.

But what you do need to know is that the technical details are completely ludicrous. I don’t know much about cryptography, but it doesn’t take much knowledge to realize, not even fifty pages in the novel, that Brown is simply ignoring some of the most fundamental axioms of the field. The idea that you can brute-force any unidentified encryption algorithm without understanding its inner workings is moronic. (Hey, what if they’re using one-time pads, hm?) Cryptography experts will suffer while reading this book, but computer specialists won’t do any better: Brown mis-uses elementary concepts (“virus” instead of “worm”, for instance) and still believes, poor child, that computers can ignite when they overheat. (Free hint: fuses.) And that’s not even talking about the hideous security mechanism that seem to be standard procedure at Brown’s NSA… yow.

While a number of those details get overturned by latter plot developments, they still don’t make sense in the story’s internal logic: Our characters, super-brainy cryptography experts they are, should know much better: That they let those things pass without comment only serves to highlight plot holes and deliberate authorial mistakes, not clever hints or deliberate gotchas. What’s worse is when the so-called smart characters blindly flail around trying to pierce together clues that are blatantly obvious to the rest of the readers.

Where those glaring technical problems really hurt is that Brown is trying to position himself as a trustworthy Knower of Stuff, and yet anyone who knows the stuff can clearly see that he’s deliberately making it up. This faux-geek dissonance is enough to break any suspension of disbelief that is a large part of the unspoken pact between reader and writer. You can compare and contrast, if you wish, Brown with authentic nerd-chic authors such as Neal Stephenson: they rarely mess around with the basics, and there’s usually a good reason when they do, as with Cryptonomicon‘s “Finux”.

If you do get past the nonsensical technical details, the novel isn’t particularly well-written or refined. Plot-wise, it seems to be made up of random plot beats taken out of a hat, regardless of sense and plausibility. It just keeps going on until the very last page, which features a “twist” that serves no purpose whatsoever. As far a characters are concerned, it’s all surfaces and clichés: If you want fat Germans tourists, obese computer hackers, well-groomed university teachers and workaholic spinsters, don’t look any further than this book.

But I’ll give one thing to Brown: Like his other novels, Digital Fortress is impossible to drop down once it starts heating up. The short chapters carry along a delicious sense of “just one more…” compulsiveness and Brown’s habit of ending them in false cliffhangers is crudely effective. (One eventually gets the sense that Digital Fortress is plotted like those cheap comic books, with a page ending with “Look out!” and the next one continuing “…isn’t that a pretty flower?”) Brown may have a number of faults, but creating forward momentum is one of his strengths. The writing is simple, the prose is uncomplicated and to undiscerning eyes, the techno-babble must sound impressive. (Much like, I fear to think, the historico-babble in The Da Vinci Code sounded plausible to me.)

It’s unfair to point out that the book flopped when it first came out in 1998 and that it only lives on today on the coattails of its far more famous sibling. And yet I have to wonder who was the original audience for the book: Clumsily written down to what seems to be a broader audience, Digital Fortress is untenable for technical readers, and barely-palatable to techno-thriller fans who know enough about this stuff. (You can’t seriously try to sell the NSA as an ultra-secretive organization to thriller readers; that Brown tries to do so on page 9 either smacks of naiveté or condescension.) But, hey, it’s by that guy who wrote The Da Vinci Code!

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